Football: Lions road to 'next level' starts now

From left: Yemen coach Sami Hasan Al Hadi and his captain Salem Awad exchanging pleasantries with Singapore's vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin and coach Tatsuma Yoshida at the Oasia Hotel Novena. The teams play their opening 2022 World Cup qualifying m
From left: Yemen coach Sami Hasan Al Hadi and his captain Salem Awad exchanging pleasantries with Singapore's vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin and coach Tatsuma Yoshida at the Oasia Hotel Novena. The teams play their opening 2022 World Cup qualifying match tonight that doubles up as a qualifier for the 2023 Asian Cup. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Asian Cup in Safuwan's sights as coach Yoshida prepares side for their first competitive outing

Barring upsets, world No. 162 Singapore and Yemen, ranked 20 spots higher, will not make it to the next round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers - not with Asian powerhouses Saudi Arabia (68th) and Uzbekistan (84th) drawn together in Group D.

However, as Singapore and Yemen kick off the second round of the qualifiers tonight at the National Stadium, the hosts will be gunning for three points but with a bigger picture in mind.

Last month, the Football Association of Singapore revealed its intention to qualify for the 2034 World Cup, and while most of the current footballers will not be playing by then, they can still pave the way for their successors.

Even if they are not among the eight group winners and four best runners-up to advance, a strong finish is required to progress to the next stage of the concurrent 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers.

This is where the Lions will try to qualify for the continental tournament for the first time, which would act as a milestone on the road towards the global showpiece.

Singapore coach Tatsuma Yoshida said at yesterday's pre-match press conference: "It (Goal 2034) is a good challenge. The national team should be role models for the younger generation and we have to keep improving.

"The boys are ready and I trust their potential, ability and energy. Even if this will be a tough 90 minutes, we must try to win and I hope our fans come and support us and help us put pressure on our opponents."

Vice-captain Safuwan Baharudin added: "I have been involved in three (qualifying) campaigns. The coaches and players may be different in each campaign but the ambition remains the same, which is to reach the next level.

SEASONED CAMPAIGNER

The coaches and players may be different in each campaign but the ambition remains the same, which is to reach the next level.

SAFUWAN BAHARUDIN, Lions vice-captain, on Singapore's goals for this qualifying campaign.

"We had a good chance to qualify for the Asian Cup in the last campaign, but this is a fresh start and we can achieve something special with coach Tatsuma."

Yoshida believes he has a competitive squad with a healthy mix of overseas-based players and youngsters, and on paper the Lions should match Yemen, who lost to Vietnam and drew with the Philippines twice in the last two years.

Thailand-based goalkeepers Hassan Sunny (Army United), Izwan Mahbud (Nongbua Pitchaya), centre-backs Baihakki Khaizan (Trat FC), Irfan Fandi (BG Pathum), as well as Malaysia-based utility players Hariss Harun (Johor Darul Takzim), Shakir Hamzah (Kedah) and Safuwan (Pahang) will provide Singapore's steel in defence.

Striker Ikhsan Fandi, who plays in Norway for Raufoss, is expected to lead the attack. He will be supported by Faris Ramli and Gabriel Quak, who have played abroad and have combined for 23 Singapore Premier League goals this season.

Singapore skipper Hariss said: "Good performances and results are necessary to convince people we are on the right track and inspire the next generation.

"I believe we have a good team, with a handful of young promising players breaking through, that can be a platform to build for the future.

"We want a win to rally everyone to move in the same direction.

"It needs to start now, and the players, like all the stakeholders in local football, have to play our part."

SINGAPORE V YEMEN

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2019, with the headline 'Lions road to 'next level' starts now'. Print Edition | Subscribe